Scaremongering in the service of enlightenment

In the middle of the 18. At the beginning of the 20th century, an unprecedented wave of fear of apparent death sweeps across Europe. That people are most afraid of being buried alive at the height of the Enlightenment, of all times, is no coincidence.

8. April 2017, 21:58

"Irritating the nostrils with rough feathers, salts, sal ammoniac, or the flat of the hand and soles of the feet with stings", Such methods have brought many an apparently dead person back to life, writes Johann Georg Krunitz in his "Oeconomische Encyclopadie" (1773-1858). Advice like this sold well in the 18. Century: Never before, and never since, has the fear of being buried alive been as great as in the Age of Enlightenment.

"German and French doctors began to issue strong warnings at the time about how difficult it was to distinguish between apparent death and ‘real death’", Says Jeffrey Freedman, a historian at Yeshiva University in New York. Until the 1700s, the cessation of perceptible cardiovascular functions – pulse, heartbeat and respiration – had been considered a sure sign of death. But when in the 18. Century the lists with fainting or coma-like physical conditions, in which the life only temporarily "stops", As the time between deaths becomes longer and longer, doubts are growing.

Fear through enlightenment

As the historian Martina Kessel points out in her book "Hirntod" ("Brain Death"), "brain death" has a catalytic function in the debate. The cultural history of the "death sentence" depicts the year 1740 – the year in which the first systematic treatise on the uncertainty of the signs of death appears.

The widely received work of the Danish anatomist Jacques Benigne-Winslow unleashes a wave of fear of suspended animation that sweeps from France to Germany to Scandinavia. Countless scientific treatises are appearing, but also numerous guidebooks aimed at a broad audience. However, the medical professionals who are engaged in scaremongering here in the service of raising awareness are not acting entirely altruistically.

"The doctors in the 18. In the twentieth century, hospitals did not yet have a monopoly position with regard to medical care for the population", Jeffrey Freedman explains. "They mainly denounced ‘ignorant old women’. These were precisely the people who usually issued the death certificate – after all, death occurred in the 18th century. In the twentieth century, hardly anyone in the presence of a doctor." Although doctors never expressed it directly, it’s clear to Freedman that the apparent death debate was a welcome way for medical professionals to devalue competitors. "They wanted to emphasize that they were the only ones truly empowered to distinguish between life and death."

The struggle for burial reform

The doctors of the 18. The scientists of the early twentieth century were convinced that there was only one unmistakable sign of whether someone was dead or merely seemingly dead: the decomposition of the corpse. In order to finally eliminate the danger of an early burial, the doctors advocated a legally stipulated period of three days for the body to be laid out in state – with success. In Austria and Bohemia, under Joseph II. forbade burial on the day of death, Prussia and Electoral Saxony enacted similar laws.

The new burial regulations, however, threw Jewish communities in particular into a dilemma. Because the Jewish ritual law prescribes – not least for hygiene reasons – the burial until sunset of the day of death. "Jewish communities faced a tough choice", says Jeffrey Freedman. "Either one bowed to the authority of the law and science, or one bowed to the authority of the rabbis. What really tore Jewish communities apart."

The fear shifts

By around 1810, general acceptance of the funeral reform was no longer an issue, and fear of apparent death was also on the wane.

However, it should not disappear completely: "Traces of this fear can also be found in the 19. and 20. Century, especially in the field of literature and cinema", says Jeffrey Freedman. "I think as soon as you could get some kind of aesthetic pleasure out of this fear, this fear was not as powerful as before."

Listening tip
Dimensions, Thursday, 17. January 2008, 19:05

Book tip
Martina Kessel "The fear of suspended animation in the 18. Century. Body and soul between religion, magic and science", in: Thomas Schlich, Claudia Wiesemann (eds.) "Brain death. On the Cultural History of the Determination of Death, Suhrkamp Publishing House

University of Trier "Oekonomische Enzykolopadie" (Economic Encyclopedia) online
Yeshiva University – Jeffrey Freedman
IFK – Conference "Fears of the 18. Century"

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